Why Black Inmates in US Prisons Convert to Islam
Weekly Pulse
August 18-24, 2006
Last week, en route to Washington DC from Atlanta in the last leg of my Fulbright study in the United States, I was upgraded from Economy to Business class. Next to me sat a huge Black man, around 7 feet tall and a body that could hardly fit in the wide seat. Moments after the flight took off, we began talking.

Tye Black was his name, and he was a man with fame—someone who had played in America’s National Football League (NFL) for four years in Carolina Panthers, which played a Super Bowl, the NFL championship, even though only after Tye retired. When I told him I was a Pakistani teacher visiting the United States as part of an international group to study ‘religious pluralism’ in the US, his next question was whether I was a Muslim. Tye was waiting for me to say ‘yes’ to ask an instant question: “How can I convert to Islam?” I told him I was not an authority on Islam, but then during the rest of the flight we had an interesting discussion on why an increasing number of black inmates in US prisons were converting to Islam.

During our study stay at the University of California, Santa Barbra, a brilliant scholar of Mexican origin nicknamed SpearIt had introduced us to his extensive research on the subject. Even though Tye Black himself had never been to a prison and was one of the rarest African American success stories in sports, he told me that he had recently purchased a copy of the Quran and, after readying a part of the Muslim holy book, was looking for someone who could guide him towards conversion to Islam.

Four years of NFL career had made him rich enough to undertake a couple of philanthropic ventures for his Black compatriots. He and a few other retired NFL fellows now voluntarily coach prospective Black youth for a potential NFL career. Tye Black is in the real estate business, and, each year, he builds and donates homes for the needy Black families. For such a selfless spirit, converting to Islam, which places negation of the self for the larger good of the community as a core human value, seemed natural. And that was also the main reason, as we were told by SpearIt in his moving talk at UC Santa Barbra just days ago.

Muslims represent 3 to 4 per cent of the American population, and the largest numbers of them are of African descent followed by South Asians and Arabs. Conversion to Islam among Black Americans community has a long history as a positive force for empowerment. In many respects, it has traditionally represented an assertion of social, political, ethnic and racial identity in a society where Blacks and other minorities face discrimination and obstacles.

Myriad of ideologies influence the outlook of Black Muslims, being currently represented by a couple of “Islamic” movements. First, the Nation of Islam, the largest and oldest grouping which was founded in 1933, encompasses a mix of Islamic discourse and a worldview which considers Blacks as God’s chosen people. Interestingly, late Shah Ahmad Noorani was the chief advisor of the Nation of Islam’s former leader Elijah Muhammad. When in an interview, Noorani was questioned as to why he is advising a movement that was not Islamic in truest sense but uses it as a cover for Black nationalism, his simple reply was that, in America, it is better to have a deformed Islam than no Islam at all.

The Nation of Gods and Earths, also known as the Five Percent Nation of Islam or simply as the Five Percenters—a rapidly rising movement which split from the Nation of Islam in 1963—represents another side of the Black identity movement that mixes aspects of Islam with Black sense of superiority. Five Percenters maintain that Islam represents a way of life. Its worldview declares Blacks as the original people of the earth and the founders of civilization. Five Percenters see Black men as Gods, which they refer to as ALLAH (Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm and Head). In their mathematical worldview, 85 per cent of the population is enslaved and deluded by the cunning of the 10 per cent, who employ knowledge and technology (which they call ‘Chic-nology) to maintain the status-quo. Only 5 bper cent of the population knows the reality of this situation. They are the Gods, the Five Percenters, who self-identify themselves as ‘Allah.’

Five Percenters enjoy a large following among Black activists and popular Hip Hop/rap music artists such as Grand Master Flash, Africa Mambada, Renegades of Funk, Erik B, Immortal Technique. Many of the Five Percenter rappers sing a vastly popular Jihadi rap, which argues for revolutionary agendas, including praises for Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda and clarion calls for Jihad against the White domination in the US. It is the Five Percenters who have an increasing following in the U.S. prison system.

Currently, US prisons encage approximately 25 per cent of the world’s entire prison population—the highest incarceration rate in the world. The Blacks constitute the largest percentage of US prison inmates. In fact, according to various statistical US prisoner surveys, one in every three inmates in US prisons is Black. The Muslim population among US prisoners ranges between 300,000 to 500,000 inmates. Latino-Hispanics, who, like Blacks, are also fast converting to Islam, form the second highest prison population followed by the Asians.

According to SpearIt, the prison environment is so oppressive and dehumanizing that just for the sake of survival, the inmates tend to form gangs. However, since the prison guards are mostly Whites and because humiliation of the inmates at their hands is a routine affair, the Black—and, of late, even Latino-Hispanic inmates—have found the ultimate relief in a horrible prison situation by turning to Islam.

Once they convert to Islam, whether to Five Percenters movement or radicalized Islam as preached by some jailed al-Qaeda activists, they liberate themselves from the real time worldly agony. “Conversion fills the prisoner with determination and agency, and in most extreme cases works to inspire ultimate commitment. For most converts, this deep drive leads to social and spiritual rejuvenation that produces a tangible form of rehabilitation…These individuals become the vengeful by-products of a penal system that has pushed some of its prisoners to the edge of their physical and psychological limit, giving birth to ‘jihadis in the cellblock,” argues SpearIt.

He further says: “For some behind bars, the prison becomes a site of religious and cultural conversion, and like the prisoner, the prison also coverts. The penal place of “corrections” is reconceived as Dar ul Islam. Under the sway of conversion, the world is viewed through the lens of Shariah and Hadith, and the prison manifests as Ummah….For converts, the prison’s visual, physical and mental systems of control are relegated to a second order and replaced by a new regime: self-control and self-empowerment.”

Conditions behind bars have yielded a situation where discursive practices are severely constrained, and are dominated by linguistic and representational forms. This is attested by the new linguistic and poetic styles that have developed over time, perhaps most notably in the evolution of ‘rap,’ which is often attributed to the Muslim convert and ex-prisoner H Rap Brown. This street preacher was well known for his style of “rappin,” a term that would later be adopted by the vocal style of hip hop music.

By now, Islamic rap is no marginal cultural phenomenon, but has firmly implanted itself at the center of US mass culture. Five Percenter megastars like Busta Rhymes, Digable Planets, Eric B and Rakim, Wu Tang Cha, and Erykah Badu sit at the center stage in American culture, flanked by equally influential varieties of Islamic Godcore, including the Roots, Mos Def, and the Fugees. Some of the recently released rap albums have openly preached jihad. For instance, the image on the cover of Paris’Sonic Jihad is a jumbo jet plane poised to crash into the White House, announcing “We ‘re back to finish the job.’

The rapid conversion of Black inmates in US prisons has caused a stir in the US establishment. According to SpearIt, questions about the prison and its connections to terrorism have risen steadily in the wake of 9/11. Just months after these dramatic attacks, another was planned against Americans targets by the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid. Of British and Jamaican descent, Reid converted to Islam in a British prison before attempting to blow up a commercial passenger plane headed for Miami. As this plan unfolded, still another was being plotted by Jose Padilla, who was arrested in spring 2002 by FBI for allegedly conspiring to build and detonate a “dirty bomb” against US targets. Some writers have made connections between Padilla’s plan and his encounter with Islam during his various stays in US prisons. He converted to Islam, adopted the name of Abdullah al Muhajir, and then traveled to Yemen and Pakistan.

It is, however, disputable whether conversion to Islam motivated Padilla, originally a Catholic Hispanic, or he was compelled into extremism by the varied injustices confronting deprived ethnic minorities in US society. At the end of the day, if the US prison system is any guide, it is the institutional interaction of race, religion and repression that offers a sure recipe for reactive violence, and of all sorts, not just religious.